OTTAWA – American and Mexican trade negotiators are discovering one more disadvantage to the breakneck pace being set for renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Unable to block book a large number of rooms in one centrally located hotel on short notice, the Canadian government, which is hosting the third round of NAFTA talks, has housed the visiting negotiators in a variety of hotels around the national capital and even across the river in Gatineau, Que.
It used yellow school buses to transport them Saturday from their hotels to the venue for the talks.
And it served them boxed lunches.
The negotiations, which continue until Wednesday, are the first to be held in Canada.
In each of the first two rounds, held in Washington and Mexico City respectively, the visiting countries’ negotiating teams were put up in the same hotel at which the talks took place.
That allowed them easy access to each other and to restaurants and bars within the same facility.
In Canada, the negotiations are being held in Ottawa’s former city hall, which is now part of Global Affairs Canada’s turf.
While the building is in a scenic location on Sussex Drive at the junction of the Ottawa and Rideau rivers, there are no hotels in the immediate vicinity.
Nor does the building have a restaurant or other amenities to cater to the negotiators. And there are none nearby. It does have a small cafeteria but it’s closed on the weekend.
Canadian officials say it was a scramble to get a conference site and hotel rooms for all the members of each country’s delegation after the dates for the third round were confirmed just two weeks ago.
There are some 200 people in the U.S. delegation and 160 in Mexico’s. This being their home turf, Canada’s delegation numbers almost 300 this time, but they at least are able to sleep in their own beds.
Whereas there are typically months between rounds in most trade negotiations, the NAFTA rounds are being held roughly two weeks apart in a bid to reach a deal by the end of the year — a deadline many trade experts believe it will be impossible to meet.
In what may be a subtle reminder to the Americans that Canada has other trade options should President Donald Trump follow through on his threat to rip up NAFTA, a large banner is hanging in the corridor through which the negotiators must walk.
It trumpets the success of the Canada-European Union free trade agreement, which went into effect last week, and is covered with celebratory messages from Canadian trade officials who were involved in those protracted talks.
“At last!” reads one message, signed by Steve Verheul — who just happens to be Canada’s chief NAFTA negotiator.
While the venue in Ottawa might be inconvenient, it’s no doubt more pleasant than the chaos the Mexican team left behind in Mexico City, which was hit by a devastating 7.1-magnitude earthquake on Tuesday, and another 6.1-magnitude temblor on Saturday.
“It’s been a traumatic experience for the country but we haven’t had any impact in terms of the negotiation,” Kenneth Smith Ramos, Mexico’s chief negotiator, said Saturday.
“Fortunately, all of the negotiating teams and their families are OK.”